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58 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars research as a search for truth, September 3, 2001
Jerry Dwyer (Lawrenceville, ga USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (Paperback)
I first read this book as an undergraduate and I have reread it several times over the years. I regard it as one of the most important books that I've read. Why? A. G. Sertillanges does more than provide advice about how to organize your life to have time to think and write, although he does that. He argues that research is a vocation to find the truth -- a great calling no matter how small one's own part. His suggestions for organizing your life follow from the seriousness of this vocation, advice that's far more useful than merely how to get the next paper written.
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55 of 56 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reflective, October 22, 2003
This review is from: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (Paperback)
Originally published in French, the translator tells us in the preface that the book was widely distributed in France. The first chapter of the book, per se establishes the premise that the intellectual life is a calling from God, one that is sacred and to be held as a trust.
In the second chapter there is a section on the spirit of prayer, among other topics.
Chapter three develops the paradox of solitude and involvement with other people. An intellectual, as is the case with other creative individuals, does both.
Work is the topic for chapter four and the contexts include: continuity of work, work at night, mornings and evening, and moments of plenitude.
A creative scholar must be open to insights around him.
"Ideas emerge from facts; they also emerge from conversations, chance occurrences, theatres, visits, strolls, the most ordinary books" (p. 73).
The remainder of the book fleshes out this discussion of intellectual work.
A reader would leave this book a more thoughtful person from having been exposed to these ideas. I recommend spending time with this author.
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39 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Contact with Genius, October 27, 2007
This review is from: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (Paperback)
1998 reprint of 1987 edition, Catholic University of America Press, 296 pages (of which 260 pages form the main body of the book)
Translated from the French (1934 2nd edition) by Mary Ryan

I came across this unusual book when discussing with my most well read friend the problem of deciding how much to read. He told me this topic was covered in Sertillanges' book and suggested I read it.

The title makes it sound as if the book might be pretentious, but it is not. In the same way that Peter Drucker's superb The Effective Executive is a book for any knowledge worker rather than just for managers, Sertillanges' book should be helpful for anyone who wishes to work using their intellect, rather than just for rarefied intellectuals.

The 1998 reissue (the 1992 date listed on is incorrect) of the 1987 edition has a new forward by James Schall. I think he captures the essence of Sertillanges' book very well:

"At first sight...this is a quaint book. At second sight it is an utterly demanding book."

The subtitle of The Intellectual Life describes its contents well: "Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods". For Sertillanges, intellectual work is not something done in isolation of the rest of a person's life. He believes strongly that in order to do intellectual work to one's capacity, one must order the whole of one's life with this goal in mind. And further, that this requires habits of simplicity, detachment, note taking, memory, writing and more. His book is thus a step-by-step manual that sets out these requirements from the general (virtues, character) to the specific (note-taking, writing).

For most people who are not already members of religious orders (Sertillanges was a Dominican friar) it would be terrifically demanding to follow all of Sertillanges' prescriptions - and involve major changes to one's life. Sertillanges does believe, however, that if one takes care with the rest of one's life then intellectual work can be done satisfactorily using only a couple of hours a day. His book is thus a mixture of the extremely demanding and eminently practical - particularly as much of his advice involves cutting out and eliminating habits that waste time and disturb thought (e.g. pointless correspondence and interactions with people, reading of novels and newspapers).

After reading Ben Franklin's autobiography and Charlie Munger's Poor Charlie's Almanack at the beginning of the year, I have become increasingly aware of the crucial role of habits in determining the outcome of peoples' lives. I was stupid enough to have spent a good proportion of my life testing out the truth of Franklin's maxim: "Experience keeps a dear school, yet Fools will learn in no other." I no longer have any doubt that forming good habits - and most especially avoiding forming bad ones - is terribly important. After all, reliability - which Munger considers the single most important determining characteristic for a person's life - is really just another habit.

Sertillanges understood this very well and the importance of habits that facilitate intellectual work is a topic that he brings up repeatedly - and in my view very wisely - in his book:

"One acquires facility in thinking just as one acquires facility in playing the piano, in riding, or painting.... The mind gets into the way of doing what is often demanded of it."

This is not the only resemblance between the advice in Sertillanges' book and that given by Charlie Munger (the best source for his ideas and the most useful book I have ever read is Poor Charlie's Almanack). The importance of a broad base of knowledge, the danger of over-specialisation and the critical importance of only a few ideas in each subject are all covered in this book.

Another striking similarity is Sertillanges' view of the importance of 'contact with genius' and how one goes about acquiring wisdom:

"...the principal profit from reading, at least from reading great works, is not the acquisition of scattered truths, it is the increase of our wisdom."

I was left with somewhat mixed feelings as I progressed through The Intellectual Life. At times Sertillanges' overt religiosity became a little much for me (I am not a religious person) and I found his prescriptions rather daunting.

As I neared the end of the book, however, my view changed and I found myself extremely grateful that Sertillanges' had written this book for us. It was partly because his section on writing answered with great clarity some problems that I had been wrestling with, and partly because I realised that one could simply take what one needed from his book - rather than the whole package.

My difficulty in deciding how much to read remains somewhat unresolved: there is a tension between Sertillanges' advice on reading and that of people like Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger on investment (my own profession/hobby). Sertillanges advises cutting down on excess (particularly undirected) reading, including, for example, newspapers:

"As to newspapers, defend yourself against them with the energy that the continuity and the indiscretion of their assault make indispensable. You must know what the papers contain, but they contain so little..."

Buffett, on the other hand, claims to read five newspapers a day and urges us to read everything in sight!

I suspect the different advice is due to the type of work. Firstly, I am not sure that investing is an inherently intellectual pursuit (Buffett has often said that after an average level of intelligence the right temperament is more important). Secondly, intelligent investment is just applied opportunism - and in order to take advantage of opportunities we must first be aware of their existence.

I did not find this an easy review to write. I have had to leave out various topics that I would like to have discussed more fully (such as Sertillanges' excellent advice on writing) and still feel this review may be overlong. However, I believe a review that does not attempt to set its subject firmly in context is of limited use. I'll leave the final word to Sertillanges:

"There are books everywhere and only a few are necessary."

I commend this unusual book to you as one of the necessary ones.
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47 of 49 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Challenge of Christian Academia, June 22, 2000
This review is from: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (Paperback)
Sertillanges delivers the reader a concentrated dose of sound advice on how to understand and obey the call to Christian scholarship. In addition to pragmatic material on life as an Academic, the author unfolds the truth that knowledge is "nothing more than a slow and gradual cure of our blindness." This insightful book is a must read for anyone who is feels a call to excellence in scholarship.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic text having lost none of its relevance for modern day seekers of Truth, May 4, 2008
This review is from: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (Paperback)
Indispensable for anyone desiring to become a genuine and disciplined scholar; it provides an outstanding roadmap for anyone aspiring to the intellectual life and its mastery. A few of Sertillanges' suggestions are antiquated due to the date of the book's publication. This, however, poses no difficulties for the reader as these patches of "elderly wisdom" are easily updated - substituting the era of the typewriter with the age of digital scholarship. The principles taught in this text remain unchanged over time. After all, it is the task of "one who would know" to refashion the specific, temporal elements of "BEING & DOING" in accordance with the essence and ideals which form the timeless core, indeed the heart, of a life lived in pursuit of the highest things. It is the journey that captivates and grips both spirit and mind with a particular awe; overwhelmingly humbling and dazzling the soul of those who bide the perils of such a life and are rewarded, if they do not succumb to their own pride, with the unexpected, dumbfounding flash of perceiving (or more accurately SEEING) an image, a fleeting shadow of "that which IS" - the act of knowing something for the first time which was not taught to you by another, nor derived as the end product of a line of reasoning.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Faith, Discipline, Balance, February 21, 2010
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This review is from: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (Paperback)
The French A.G. Sertillanges originally wrote The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods in 1920. This edition was published by The Catholic University Press in 1987. The translation from the French is both warm, and serious. It reads as if you are sitting by a warm fire in the evening, in a quiet room full of books from all ages. An experienced friend is telling you the best way to go about spending your future time in this favorite room.

What first drew me to this book was its title. I wondered if it would give me some insight into the private thoughts of great thinkers. Besides, if the book has been around 90 years, and is still in print, certainly there would be something to be gleaned from its pages. The title may seem a little daunting at first, but the truth is that this book is a very heartfelt journey into the life and mind of the everyman thinker, whom Sertillanges calls "great men", but can be any man with the drive, desire, and discipline to think and produce something original.

While this book is male-centric, and considers women to be the "wife of the thinker", this was in no way a hindrance to my enjoyment of the book as a woman. This was simply a product of the time, and also very fair and right in its portrayal of the role of the wife. A wife, Sertillanges says, can be supportive of her thinking husband, and also help him by just being with him while he works, she also working on something she equally loves. This is right, proper, timeless, and in no way means that a woman can't just happen to love being a thinker also, as opposed to say for example, the family seamstress or gardener: both good hobbies and work in their own right. The point in it all is discipline more so than gender.

The major themes throughout this book are Faith, Discipline, and Balance. Sertillanges asserts that a blend of Roman Catholic tradition, a purposeful discipline, and a balanced life are the key to succesfull and fulfilling thought thereby generating great works for the benefit of all. I can't say that this formula is wrong as it is based on Biblical values, however, I do believe that Sertillanges places too much emphasis on Roman Catholic Tradition instead of pure Biblical Truth. As a Catholic author this shouldn't surprise his readers; Catholics hold both scripture and church tradition as equal as decreed by the Council of Trent, the documents of which Sertillanges suggests a learned man read. This is one main difference between Catholics and Protestants who hold a doctrine of Sola Scripture - "Scripture Alone". I fall in the latter camp, but since this book is not a book on theological doctrine, I simply took in this part of the book as informational. I can say that I was very appreciative of the fact that Sertillanges makes a strong case for the validity and importance of men of faith living the intellectual life in service to God. This is a point he makes well.

Sertillanges spends a large portion of the book explaining why the intellectual life is a calling, a vocation, and why a disciplined mindset is pivotal in fulfilling this calling effectively. His primary recommendations revolve around simplification of one's daily schedule, having a good understanding and practice of solitude, and preserving an interior mental silence. In later chapters, he described how to organize one's reading, research, note-taking, and writing. Some of the methods described are outdated but can be easily adapted to the computer age. Overall, the ideas and mindset transferred to the reader are of the type that stay with a person, reminding them of a better way when doing the work of the thinker.

A few key quotes:

"Slacken the tempo of your life. Receptions, visits that give rise to fresh obligations, formal intercourse with one's neighbors, all the complicated ritual of an artificial life that so many men of the world secretly detest - these things are for a worker. Society life is fatal to study."

"Vocation means concentration. The work and the conditions that further it are the whole thing. Money and attention squandered on trifles will be much better spent on collecting a library, providing for instructive travel or restful holidays, going to hear music which rekindles inspiration, and so on."

"Frequent only a few whose society is profitable; avoid, even with these, the excessive familiarity which drags one down and away from one's purpose; do not run after news that occupies the mind to no purpose; do not busy yourself with the saying and doings of the world , that is with such as have no moral or intellectual bearing [tabloids and gossip sites, anyone?]; avoid unless comings and goings which waste hours and fill the mind with wandering thoughts. These are the conditions of that sacred thing, quiet recollection. Only in this way, does one gain access to the royal secrets..."

My personal favorites:

"And you, thinker, why have you come to this life outside the ordinary life, to this life of consecration, concentration, and therefore solitude? Was it not because of a choice? Did you not prefer truth the the daily lie of a scattered life, or even to the noble but secondary preoccupations of action?"

"Thus the wise man, at all times and on every road, carries a mind ripe for acquisitions that ordinary folk neglect." [This is not about intellectual snobbery, this is about a choice that any person can make.]

Quoting Keyseling: "The truly wise man doed not dispute, he does not defend himself. He speaks, or he listens; he states or he tries to discover the meaning of things. [How is that for a lesson in internet etiquette, not to mention life?]

On variety of study: "You must cross your crops in order not to ruin the soil. And do not imagine that to carry this comparative study to a certain point is to overload yourself and to lose time about embarking on a special study. You will not overload yourself, for the lights thrown by one subject on another will, on the contrary, make everything easier; as you acquire breadth, you mind will grow more receptive, and less easily burdened. By approaching the center of all ideas, everything is simplified, and what better means is there of approaching then center than to try different paths, which all, like the radii of a circle, make us feel that we are converging on a common meeting place."

At this point, I am tempted a create a graph of this spoked circle of varied study, with God at its center, because to know anything truly, God must be at the core. Another picture of this is that to know anything truly, God must be at its foundation; the subject must be approached from a Biblical, Truthful worldview as its basis.

This leads well into a final quote, which will also serve as a fit conclusion:

"The man without some such equipment, is in the intellectual universe, like the traveler who easily falls into skepticism through getting to know many dissimilar civilizations, and contradictory doctrines. This lack of a coherent system of ideas is one of the great misfortunes of our age. To escape it, thanks to the intellectual balance afforded by a sure body of doctrine, is an incomparable benefit."
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth Your Time, February 18, 2012
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This review is from: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (Paperback)
A. G. Sertillanges (1863-1948) was a French Dominican brother who studied the moral philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, the great Catholic theologian. Sertillanges published this particular work, "The Intellectual Life," primarily for lay Catholic readers who intend to pursue an intellectual activity as at least a part of their life's main work. His model is a short letter attributed to Aquinas that goes by the name of "Sixteen Precepts for Acquiring the Treasure of Knowledge," and his goal is to update Aquinas's vision of intellectual work as expressed principally in this letter for a modern reader. Following Aquinas's lead, Sertillanges gives practical and theoretical guidance in the topics of the proper mode of living for an intellectual and the moral and intellectual framework that should underly a life devoted to study.

Among the most interesting of Sertillanges' arguments is the idea that an intellectual life must be a vocation in the sense that an individual must have an inborn desire for intellectual work, and further that a personal lacking such a call will not have the will to accomplish anything in the intellectual sphere, despite perhaps possessing great intelligence or other virtues. So the first insight is that will to do and an interest in intellectual work is the first, most important qualification, and that success or failure in an intellectual occupation is mainly an issue of disposition rather than intelligence.

Another principal argument is the idea that an intellectual has a moral obligation to the rest of mankind, and that this obligation demands that all intellectual work must have an eventual practical use for society. The same moral obligation also dictates that an intellectual should prefer a project that is within their ability to complete rather than another greater and perhaps more interesting project that is too large for their gifts, because a completed project does service to the world while an uncompleted work does not serve anyone.

Sertillanges also argues that while we should initially develop a broad intellectual base of knowledge to build upon, a deep speciality knowledge is essential to actually understanding the world. He believes that real knowledge is always a knowledge of root causes. One cannot hope to develop this knowledge by a broad survey of many subjects, but instead by endeavoring to understand at least one subject down to the fundamentals. To know one thing is necessarily to neglect others, and a certain amount of ignorance is necessary and unavoidable for a true intellectual.

Other reviewers on this site have criticized Sertillanges as being uncomfortably effusive over religious themes, and this is without a doubt a fair criticism. Additionally, many of his arguments rely on appeals to Catholic theology and morality, and it follows that readers who do not share Sertillanges' beliefs may have trouble accepting certain of his conclusions. The Catholic idea of service and good works does however adapt pretty well to a humanist paradigm, and readers who approach the work from this angle will likely be able to resolve the issue to their satisfaction.

A related criticism is that most of Sertillanges' arguments are unscientific in nature, and rely more on metaphorical examples and biographical episodes than on cause and effect or logic. This criticism is harder to answer, except to say that many of Sertillanges' conclusion really have the ring of truth when contemplated in the context of one's own education experience, and seem to be effective when put into action.

Aside from those qualifications, this book is the most insightful I've read on the topic of education and learning, and among the first rank of anything I've ever read. On an initial approach, many of Sertillanges' conclusions are ideas that you may feel that you have a decent understanding of already. There is, however, a significant functional difference between half-knowledge and actual knowledge, that is to say that you will get more out of an idea that you have developed to enough of a degree to trust in action as compared to another idea with which you are merely familiar. Additionally, many of Sertillanges conclusions share a counterintuitive element with the arguments I summarized above. For those reasons, I give this work my very highest recommendation.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely gorgeous book!, May 27, 2005
Stefan Jetchick (Sillery, Quebec Canada) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (Paperback)
Still a very good book about:
Why (a lot) and how (a little bit) to become a
good thinker. Very inspiring.
The original French version is available for free online
(among others at [...]
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This Book Can Change Your Outlook on Life, January 13, 2012
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This review is from: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (Paperback)
There are some books that have the ability to change the way you look at things, and this is one of them. Written originally back in 1921, 'The Intellectual Life' by A.G. Sertillanges O.P. is a manual for those interested in the intellectual life of study. But is is much more than that, it is a manual on how to live. The book is based upon a Thomistic framework, explaining first what the intellectual life is and why one would engage in such work. The author makes it clear that there can be no real intellectual work without virtue, being regularly engaged in prayer, and of course being in the state of grace. Discipline of the body is also expressed. One who cannot control their appetite for example makes a poor intellectual. It is extremely important to have a regular schedule in life, having the same time each day to pray, to exercise, to study, and of course fulfill your regular obligations of work and family, etc. The author even touches upon getting proper sleep, not too much, yet not too little, and even gives advice on how to make your sleep productive.

The second half of the book explains how to actually engage in study. He talks about always using the methods of Saint Thomas to form one's intellectual foundation, starting first learning the basic principles of philosophy and logic. The book teaches you how to read and how to properly research the subjects you want to study. He teaches you how to take notes and how to write well. How you spend your time with others and how you engage with them is also talked about. In short, the author teaches you not really how to study or how to write as a separate work, but he teaches you what it actually means to be an intellectual in the true sense of the word. It is not something that you do, but something that you become. He teaches you how to integrate your daily work, your family life, your spiritual life and your study so that you can always be active in living "the intellectual life." If there is one book you should read before you read any others, this is it. It has changed the way I think about life, and it is rare that a book has this effect. It has made me think about what is important in life. I am now on a mission to remove any obstacles that will keep me from achieving a well ordered life towards God, and towards my studies.

The author also has another great book available titled, 'Thomas Aquinas, Scholar, Poet, Mystic, Saint'. It is an introductory book on Saint Thomas which gives a basic sketch of his life, his thought, his spirituality and his work. It is only 140 pages, but it is a great book to read along with 'The Intellectual Life.' I find it always rewarding to go back and read introductory works on Saint Thomas. There is always something to be learned from them. If you implement what these two books teach, then I believe that you will be made a better person in doing so.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The world is in danger for lack of life-giving maxims.", March 3, 2012
Robert Hoeppner (Southwick, MA USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (Paperback)
And there are plenty of maxims in this book. I missed not being able to highlight them on my Kindle, but, then again, it's just as well, since I would have highlighted half the book. My favorite may be an unattributed quote "He who stumbles without falling takes a bigger step forward."

Sertillanges outlines the nature of and the virtues needed for the intellectual life. He discusses the balance of the physical, mental, and social aspects of the intellectual life. Much of it centers on balancing the depth and breadth of focus: studying and recreation; sitting and walking, reading and looking around; learning and creating, etc.

Open to any random page and you are likely to read an inspiring thought in a well-turned phrase. As I read I kept imagining one sentence after another being posted to someone's Facebook status.

This is an ennobling manifesto of living a life devoted to thought.
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The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods
The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods by OP A. G. Sertillanges (Paperback - May 1, 1987)
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